30 December 2013

Hammer, Lee, and Cushing Again!

Hammer, Lee, Cushing…Again! 
By Kristin Battestella

Another year, another entry into the glorious study of all things, Hammer, Lee, and Cushing!

The Curse of the Mummy’s Tomb – Hammer producer Michael Carreras (Maniac) wrote and directed this 1964 sequel to The Mummy, and it’s a well shot piece with plenty of Egyptian color, tombs, flashbacks, artifacts, humor, and film within a film carnival spectacles. The 1900 designs are also period fine, but some scenes are obviously on-set small scale and lacking the expected all out Hammer values, making this follow up feel like some one else’s beat for beat B knock off rather than an authorized continuation. Opening blood and violence, characters at each other’s throats in fear of the eponymous threat, brief debates on traveling sideshow exhibitions, and scandalous belly dancing can’t overcome the slow, meandering pace while we await the well wrapped and perfectly lumbering Mummy violence. Jeanne Roland (You Only Live Twice) is very poorly dubbed, and beyond the over the top, annoying, love to hate Fred Clark (How to Marry A Millionaire) as a sell out American financier, the rest of the cast is interchangeably bland with no chemistry. The somewhat undynamic writing is uneven, with twists and mysteries either out of the blue, too tough to follow, or all too apparent. Though the sinister deaths aren’t scary, it’s all somehow enjoyably predictable because we’ve seen so many rinse and repeat Mummy films. This isn’t a bad movie, but it takes most of its time getting to the Mummy scenes we want to see – and we can see a lot of fact or fiction Egyptology programming today. It’s not quite solid on its own and feels sub par compared to its predecessor, yet this one will suffice Mummy fans and fits in perfectly with a pastiche viewing or marathon.

Dr. Jekyll and Sister Hyde – This 1971 Robert Louis Stevenson meets Jack the Ripper mash up from Hammer has psychedelic DVD menus, nice Victorian interiors, and pleasant period scoring, yet it feels like it should be more stylish than it is thanks to cheap costumes and shabby London streets. Though the fog is moody and this side of town was supposed to be seedy, we don’t really see the Ripper Murders, and tossed in Burke and Hare grave robbing and Whitechapel investigations further muddle the narration and confuse the timeline. Ralph Bates (Lust for a Vampire) is slow to start – it takes half the film for the decidedly out of place and sixties looking Martine Beswick (One Million Years B.C.) to do anything, too – and this lack of Hammer stars dampens the fun. The studio’s later day decline perhaps stems from the absence of second generation star power; Oliver Reed or Michael Gough and Bates were groomed, but no other team stood out to replace Lee and Cushing. Such B styled, stale stock design hampers the unfulfilled potential from writer Brian Clemens (The Avengers). Director Roy Ward Baker (Quartermass and the Pit) mixes pieces of The Lodger with Frankenstein bodies but this detracts from any personal, interior examinations. The audience has no reason to care about nosy neighbors – not only would I move if they kept walking in on my secret experiments, but they never notice the Clark Kent/Superman happenings. Dialogue hints on the doing bad to do good quest for science are interesting but too brief, and if one seeks immortality by killing hookers for their female hormones, there should be more sex, nudity, and violence. Fun transformations and filming trickeries develop this crazy premise, but things fizzle under too many external happenings. Where are the moral explanations or psychology of the sex change? Is Jekyll gay or harboring cross dressing or transsexual feelings? Subtle uses of the word “queer” in both definitions may or may not suggest more. The blurred line between the good and evil of the identities is well done, but the pacing meanders. Sexuality and bodily consequences on both sides are not fully explored, and this 97 minutes just doesn’t feel as depraved as we might expect. Yes, there are certainly plot holes, misdirection, flawed execution, and an absence of Hammer flair. However, this is nonetheless entertaining just for the battle of the sexes novelty and the all encompassing, ambitious Victorian macabre.

The Two Faces of Dr. Jekyll – A decade before Sister Hyde, Terrence Fisher helmed this 1960 Hammer adaptation of Stevenson’s classic featuring Christopher Lee alongside Paul Massie (Orders to Kill), Dawn Addams (The Robe), and a brief appearance by Oliver Reed (Paranoiac). Sir Christopher looks good with plenty of scandalous chemistry, and again one wonders why he wasn’t a traditional leading man more. His bedroom scenes are all clothed, unlike Hyde, and his drunken best friend and gentleman’s clubs pale in comparison to Hyde’s increasing depravity. Massie presents a suave, sophisticated, wolf in sheep’s clothing Hyde who’s able to charm Jekyll’s wife when the unlikable, frumpy, not so good doctor cannot. Dialogue about the hidden man and mirror conversations with Hyde keep the Stevenson spirit while the gentlemanly switch lends a new commentary on how excess can be so stylized. This love triangle keeps the plot more high society than dark streets, but seedy back room action, prostitutes, and opium indicate the desperate downward spiral – along with some language, side boob, can can, and snake dancing for good measure. The debauchery is probably tame today and the decadent character changes obvious, but this internal conflict isn’t meant to be a scary, horror film and there are no torturous transformation scenes. The women’s costumes, however, feel later than the 1874 setting, and the music invokes a turn of the century carnival or silent film design with music speaking for dialogue, mute children, and readable, inter title-esque close up shots of Jekyll’s journals. His penmanship is naturally a scratchy, block print while Hyde’s is a flowing cursive script, but the mangled voice, masked makeup design, and disappearing Jekyll beard is hokey. Yes, the beard is symbolic of the cowardly Jekyll, his dark laboratory, and secret mad scientist intentions. It may be cliché that he is robbed and face down in the muddy street while Hyde has lush, upscale apartments and a foreign mistress who subtextually puts a snake in her mouth along with other exotic implications. Yet the role reversal remains intriguing, and contemporary viewers may even prefer Hyde’s honesty about his openly immoral lifestyle. Evil is not stupid but a slick mastermind wearing a smile. Who’s the dominant personality? Which of our natures is actually the façade, the face we wear and the person we really are? Perhaps these angles are old hat now, but the smart script from Wolf Mankowitz (Dickens of London), intense intercuts, and swift pacing are better than Sister Hyde. Hammer’s full efforts are apparent here, so I’m surprised this picture lost money and isn’t more loved. It should be!

And a What the Heck?

The Legend of the Seven Golden Vampires – Although Hammer’s Dracula series wasn’t exactly known for its consistency, this 1974 samurai meets vampires crossover muddles the timeline further, easily resurrects its angry and infamously not Christopher Lee Dracula, and unevenly mixes its two-movies-in-one inspired parts. The bad makeup, dubbing by David de Keyser (Leo the Lasyt), and almost comically green, alien lighting for John Forbes-Robertson (The Vampire Lovers) as Dracula isn’t scary and feels unnecessary – other Hammer vivid designs, period Asian style, undead rituals, and zombies rising from the grave are great but it’s tough to tell what’s happening most of the time. Fight scenes, nudity, and blood sucking are well done along with hints of Buddhist relics affecting these vamps, but Peter Cushing partly tells the titular legend in flashback instead of it being the main story. It might have been neat to see his traveling Van Helsing film series as he battles all manner of evil across the globe, but one has to wonder why Cushing took this role. Despite interesting character opportunities and uniqueness, Big Pete instead goes head to head in a reversed Magnificent Seven protect the village from the bad guys cliché. The audience never gets a satisfactory feeling from either the Fu or the Brits involved – the Chinese vampires didn’t need Dracula or Van Helsing, but Van Helsing on a vampire tour doesn’t need Kung Fu action, either. While this full length, unedited version is the one to see, unfortunate compression, film speed issues, and a fast hour and 25-minute runtime on the recent Millennium Films Hammer Horror Collection DVD set further sabotages the premise here. Today’s viewer may look at this and wonder if the speed is supposed to be part of some sort of Kung Fu lips not matching the voices comedy! I hoped this would be good – and I do believe it is possible to combine vampires, martial arts, and horror – but this should have been a straight Hammer Asian arts film. I get tingling imaging the possibilities, but viewer expectations aren’t fulfilled here. 

 (Peter Cushing, Hear him Roar!)

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